Speaking to the annual meeting of the Natural Resources Council of Maine in Portland, today former U.S. Senator George Mitchell struck an upbeat note about the future of the nation’s polarized political system and the environment. Mitchell said he has faith the American public will find common ground for the protection of the planet but it will be hard work, take a long time and test the nation’s political will.
Democrat George Mitchell had big shoes to fill when he was appointed to the U.S. Senate after Edmund Muskie resigned to become Secretary of State in 1980. Muskie was the author of the Clean Water Act and Mitchell says Muskie stood up to powerful polluting industries to get it passed. Prior to its adoption 85 percent of the nation’s water bodies, including the Penobscot, Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers were so polluted you wouldn’t stick your big toe in them. Now, he said, 85 percent of rivers and lakes are swimmable. Like Muskie, Mitchell had his own political and environmental successes. He went on to become Senate Majority Leader and after tough negotiations helped write the legislation for the Clean Air Act in 1990. It took years. And Mitchell said the battle is far from over.
“The proposed rollback of our nation’s basic environmental laws, the attacks on the science behind climate change,” Mitchell said. “As alarming as these may seem they also are familiar. Our recent history has been marked by alternating cycles of progress and retrenchment. A step forward and then a step backward.”
Mitchell said it would be easy to despair about inaction in Congress…but he believes people must do all they can to ensure that reason and logic prevail.
“Some of our political leaders have said that climate change is not real. But I believe that this anti-science view will fade away in coming years,” he said. “Remember, it took a long time for people to accept that the Earth is not flat. Or that the Earth orbits around the sun.”
Mitchell said as the scientific evidence keeps piling up, proving that climate change is real and that human activity creates a large portion of the problem be believes the American public will respond.
“This will be hard work. It will take a long time,” he said. “But there isn’t any realistic alternative…It will test the limits of human creativity, innovation, political will and social structures. But I’m confident that we can and will rise to the challenge.”
A recent poll of more than 1,000 Americans by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that 78 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of Independents and 53 percent of Republicans believe that climate change is happening. The poll found Tea Party respondents make up the majority of climate skeptics.
Mitchell said political leaders, no matter what the party, can be barometers for public sentiment. Meeting with reporters after his speech, Mitchell was asked why he’s so optimistic when fewer members of the GOP have found common ground in the science of climate change.
“The public often takes it cue from those people believe are their leaders,” he said. “And the leaders spend an inordinate amount of money and time through polling and personal contact to try to figure out what the public thinks…It’s an interactive effort and the obligation on those of us who believe in the importance of getting it right in terms of both science and public policy is to continue to make the case as best we can..it’s a constant effort and I believe we have to participate in it.”
This month the Obama administration announced it will not update air quality standards for ozone pollution despite a unanimous recommendation by a panel of independent board of scientists and air quality experts that it should be strengthened. The panel had been created by the Clean Air Act. But President Obama said concern about the economy was a factor in his decision. While he’s disappointed that the updated standards were not adopted by the President, Mitchell said he sees a rational basis for the President’s line of thinking. He also acknowledged that the move could be interpreted as a sign that the President is putting the economy over the environment, something Mitchell says represents a false choice.